Initiatives to increase civic engagement in Toronto

Civic Innovation TO
Taking one of our early-stage initiatives to the street at a busy coffee shop for feedback
Taking one of our early-stage initiatives to the street at a busy coffee shop for feedback
Taking one of our early-stage initiatives to the street at a busy coffee shop for feedback

At its heart, innovation is about developing creative solutions that address people’s real, unmet needs. This is why we started our priority project by building an in-depth understanding of civic engagement in Toronto, including how it affects the people living and working in the city and specifically the residents of Toronto’s Neighbourhood Improvement Areas (NIAs).

We’ve been humbled and honoured to work with resident advisors, City staff and passionate partners to understand the challenges to more inclusive and diverse civic participation, followed by gathering ideas that we could quickly co-create and test for maximum impact.

Before we jump into what the list of potential solutions in progress are, it’s important to mention that it took time to design a thoughtful plan to approach a project as ambitious as this one. (We’ll talk about that in our next post!)

Armed with a better understanding of the problem and how it impacts people’s lives, we entered into a 5-week sprint to generate as many ideas as possible with residents and City staff that resulted in a colourful portfolio of ideas — 305 of them to be exact! — that ranged from practical to wild. As much as we would have loved to take on all of those ideas, we had to narrow down the list so that we could start visualizing the concepts to move forward to the next stage: testing and prototyping.

Here are three initiatives that we are in various stages of testing:

1. Civic Participation Portal

  • The idea: An online portal to enhance city-wide dialogue on topics that are interesting, local and useful for residents.
  • The problem it solves: The time and location of city meetings to discuss local topics can be difficult for some people to attend in person to have their voices heard. For people living in the NIAs, it’s even harder.
  • The desired impact: It feels easy, engaging, exciting, and empowering for residents to participate in civic conversations online. The City is able to effectively focus and support residents in ongoing consultations while gathering reliable input on residents’ needs and interests.
  • Status: Late-stage testing
Images of field tests where we took mock-ups of the Civic Participation Portal in public areas across Toronto to test and gather feedback

2. Digital Translation Tools

  • The idea: Provide front-line City staff with free and existing digital tools for on-the-spot translations to make communication possible for residents who might not speak, or understand, English. These tools would supplement Toronto’s multilingual policy and be tested for compatibility in the context of public service.
  • The problem it solves: It is difficult (and at times impossible) for residents who speak little to no English to communicate what they need from their city government or simply navigating city centres. City staff have created thoughtful workarounds to service non-English speaking residents, but need additional support to ensure they can address low-complex questions in real-time.
  • The desired impact: Ensure a sense of dignity and ownership of one’s voice with the ability to speak in their preferred language with the help of a digital translation app, while empowering City staff to provide the level of service and support they want to give the public.
  • Status: Mid-stage testing
Testing one of several features of translation apps to find the best way to use them in the context of serving the public.
Testing one of several features of translation apps to find the best way to use them in the context of serving the public.
Testing one of several features of translation apps to find the best way to use them in the context of serving the public. Above: Taking poster text from English to Bangla

3. Reframing Long-term Impact for the Neighbourhood Grant Program

  • The idea: An updated framework for defining, connecting, and communicating the long-term impact of Toronto’s Neighbourhood Grants Program (NGP) to the participants and their communities.
  • The problem it solves: To create awareness and relevance of the benefits in participating in the program especially with residents living in the NIAs who wouldn’t normally apply for grants.
  • The desired impact: Participants would have the ability to engage more residents, recruit future participants, secure local business partners, and hold more events through this successful grants program by telling their impact story back to their community and to the City.
  • Status: Designing the implementation plan
Building a service blueprint from interviews with program participants (left) surfaced a strategic opportunity to reframe “long-term impact” for the program (centre) followed by a prototype co-created with participants to guide self-reflection (right). Both are currently under review for implementation.

Collaborating with residents to co-create and test these initiatives has been a humbling experience as they have provided fantastic feedback on several versions of the prototypes (test-versions) of these initiatives. This feedback has been critical in ensuring we set aside our own assumptions about the solution and by reducing the risk and costs involved in implementing them.

What’s next?

Each of these initiatives are in varying stages of testing and prototyping, so they’re not quite fully baked yet. That said, with the progress we’ve made so far and learnings captured along the way, we are actively assessing what a broader pilot might look like for each including delivery schedules, budget, partners, etc.

Leave your comments below for more topics you’d like us to cover, or any suggestions from fellow civic innovators. We would love to hear them!

If you are interested in learning more about this project or the Civic Innovation Office, come join us during our weekly Office Hours every Friday between 1–3pm on the main floor of City Hall or check out our website. You can also find us on Twitter @civictoronto.

About the Civic Innovation Office:

The Civic Innovation Office at the City of Toronto focuses on creating meaningful solutions for the people of Toronto through human-centred design principles, new ideas and modern tools. We believe that enhancing the collection, analysis and availability of data helps us all understand Toronto better.

Established in 2017, our office engages with Toronto’s growing innovation sector as a client, co-creator and champion. By focusing on resident-facing issues and encouraging collaboration between City divisions, we develop opportunities for talented people to do their best work with the City.

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